U.S. pandemic options include crippling home modems

October 30, 2009 12:32 PM EDT

The U.S. has a dark box of options for keeping Internet traffic flowing during a pandemic, including restricting the bandwidth capability of home modems.

The feds have already shown their willingness to impose their power on carriers because of national security, something that happened after 9/11 with the Patriot Act. If a pandemic keeps large numbers of the workforce at home and causes network congestion, the U.S. government will likely act again.

Most businesses and government agencies have diverse routing and pay carriers handsomely for bandwidth rich connections. But if a pandemic keeps 30% or more of the population at home, the so-called low bandwidth "last mile" to homes will be critical but in trouble as legions of at-home employees attempt work along with those playing networked games and streaming video.

Voluntary appeals to reduce Internet use will likely be the first option for policy makers. But if that doesn't work, the U.S. General Accountability Office report this week on pandemic planning and networks, outlined some of the other possibilities.

One "technically feasible alternative," wrote the GAO, is to temporarily cripple home user modems:

Although providers cannot identify users at the computer level to manage traffic from that point, two providers stated that if the residential Internet access network in a particular neighborhood was experiencing congestion, a provider could attempt to reduce congestion by reducing the amount of traffic that each user could send to and receive from his or her network. Such a reduction would require adjusting the configuration file within each customer's modem to temporarily reduce the maximum transmission speed that that modem was capable of performing-for example, by reducing its incoming capability from 7 Mbps to 1 Mbps.

That action would violate service level of agreement and likely require a government directive, according to the GAO

Another option would be shut down those Internet sites that account for most the traffic volume, or ask the carriers to block access to those sites, which may be similar to what China does now and what Iran tried to do. The GAO wrote:

However, most providers' staff told us that blocking users from accessing such sites, while technically possible, would be very difficult and, in their view, would not address the congestion problem and would require a directive from the government. One provider indicated that such blocking would be difficult because determining which sites should be blocked would be a very subjective process. Additionally, this provider noted that technologically savvy site operators could change their Internet protocol addresses, allowing users to access the site regardless. ... Shutting down such sites without affecting pertinent information would be a challenge for providers and could create more Internet congestion as users would repeatedly try to access these sites.
This issue will weigh on policy makers and they may take a lesson from Katrina. If the U.S. waits too long to prepare with either voluntary or involuntary actions, then it may be responding well after the traffic torrent has interrupted critical services.   
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